Koji moves Sox a win away from Series

Koji moves Sox a win away from Series
October 18, 2013, 3:00 am
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DETROIT -- It began here, in this very city, and in this very ballpark. So in this crazy, who-could-have-seen-this-coming season the Red Sox are enjoying, maybe it makes perfect sense, perfect symmetry, for it almost end here.
Almost, as in, on the threshold of a pennant. Almost, as in moving to within a win of the World Series.
It was here, in the final week of June that the Red Sox turned their lonely eyes to Koji Uehara. They had tried -- and failed -- with Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey, and ever so briefly, Junichi Tazawa.
Running out of options, they turned to Uehara. Simply put, there weren't a lot of others left standing.
Never in their wildest dreams, though, could they have envisioned this. Never could they have forecast that Ueharaa would, for a half-season, become arguably the most dominant, most reliable closer in the game.
And surely, they couldn't have dared to think that almost four months later, he would pitch them to to the doorstep of the World Series.
"There's always guys who step up in championship teams' years,'' said Dustin Pedroia after the Red Sox had held off the Detroit Tigers, 4-3 in Game 5 of the ALCS. "He's one of those guys who filled that role, embraced it. He's been pretty special for us.''
Uehara hasn't been perfect in the postseason. He allowed a two-out walkoff homer to Jose Lobaton which cost the Red Sox Game 3 of the Division
Still, even in the wake of that loss, the Red Sox never wavered in  their confidence in him, and to his credit, Uehara didn't buckle again.
He said, in the immediate aftermath of that loss, that he had already put the defeat behind him, and apparently, he wasn't kidding.
Since then, Uehara has appeared in five games and pitched 6 1/3 innings. He's struck out nine, walked none and hitters are hitting .143 (3-for-21)
against him.
Uehara had to know that the workload would be significant for him in Game 5 when John Farrell lifted starter Jon Lester with 11 outs to go. First
Junichi Tazawa and then Craig Breslow worked their way through the minefield that is the Tigers lineup, but for the final out five outs, Farrell went with Uehara.
"When you've got your starter out and then your main guys down in the bullpen,'' said catcher David Ross, "it's just nice to know that you've
got kind of an ace in the hole back there that's been doing a good job for you all year long. We've got a ton of confidence in him. I've caught
a lot of good closers in my career, and he ranks right up there with him.''
Thanks to how the lineup fell, Breslow and Uehara had already carved up the toughest part of the Detroit batting order. But five outs are five
outs, and in a series marked by one-run games -- four of the five to date -- and no margin for error, this was far from routine.
The toughest out, as it turned out, was the first. After Breslow got the ever-dangerous Victor Martinez on a groundout to open the eighth,  Uehara was summoned for Jhonny Peralta, who has had one big hit after another in this series.
Uehara is usually the model of effiency, often not needing more than three or four pitches to record an out, but Peralta battled him bravely,
fouling off one pitch after antother before Uehara put him away, swinging,on the ninth pitch of the at-bat.
"He's been the most dangerous hitter in this series,'' said Uehara, "so I was being a little bit more cautious.''
Uehara had just one five-out save in the regular season -- there were other five-out appearances in non-save situations -- but this, he freely admitted, was different.
"Maybe it's the the same five outs, numbers-wise,'' said Uehara. "But it was completely different because it's the playoffs. Pitching-wise, I don't
change anything. I just believe in what the catcher is putting down and throw strikes.''
But this (italics) was (end italics) different, as Uehara himself hinted at. In the ninth, after three flyouts retired the Tigers, it was evident.
Ordinarily, Uehara is the most exuberant player on the field, providing manic high-fives for anyone brave enough to acdept them.
After the final out Thursday night, however, there was relief rather than vitality. He looked spent.
Instead of touching off another wild celebration, he hugged Ross tightly and seemed to be relying on his catcher to hold him up.
"I just felt exhausted,'' admitted Uehara. "I'm too tired to even look back.''
There was no time, no energy, to even look back to that day in June when John Farrell told him he would be the team's last line of defense, its
ninth inning safety net.
And, no, Koji Uehara didn't see all the rest coming -- the saves, nearly being elected to the All-Star Game, or the cult-like following his work has attracted.
"I wasn't able to think that far ahead,'' said Uehara.
Nobody was, of course. Nobody saw this coming. Now that the Red Sox are on the brink of a pennant, that's what makes Koji Uehara's story one of the
best, most symbolic stories of the season.
And why it was completely appropriate that the journey nearly reach its conclusion here, in the city and the ballpark where it began back in June.